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10 tips for first-time authors

Have an idea for a story? ASU English prof gives 10 tips for first-time authors.
December 14, 2018

After 45 years in the industry, ASU English Professor James Blasingame has these tips to offer

Everyone has a story, and everyone has the voice to tell it.

That was the advice given by Arizona State University English Professor James Blasingame, himself an author who recently made news for helping a young woman make her dreams of publishing a book come true in less than six months, through the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

So you have the idea for a story — now what? Here are Blasingame's 10 tips to keep in mind for first-time authors.

1. Anyone can do it 

“Everyone has a story to tell, and the language to tell it," Blasingame said. "Anybody can do it. As human beings, we are creatures of story. Everything is a story: When you are talking with your friends, you are really telling a story. Your life is a story; it is inherent in our psyche. So anyone can write a book.”

One of the books Blasingame wrote was about cowboy poetry, an art form he calls an example of how people without a strictly academic background bring an authenticity to their writing.

“There is something in the raw honesty of their poetry that just says, 'Oh my gosh, this is a real cowboy,'” he said. “And he or she is expressing what that life is like with an insight that is undeniable. Now they may not use the same words or scansion that a polished MFA poet, but it's still good." 

While anyone can be an author, there are still a few guidelines any story has to follow. 

2. Start with a good premise

“Despite what Jerry Seinfeld said, a story about nothing is probably not going to work," Blasingame said.

“You have to have a good story premise, to begin with. For example, ‘I imagined a teenage girl in love with a vampire’ … or whatever it is, you have to have some conflict that you can imagine resonating with young readers, but also that you can think of what would be a really exciting and fulfilling climax to this. Where can this story go? After you’ve got an idea for the story, and a place for the story to go and a story arc, now you can try to think of some compelling characters that will resonate with adolescent readers."

Simple right? Not so much — while the process can be straightforward, it is easy to get lost in the process of drafting a story. 

3. Have an authentic voice for your audience 

Blasingame is an expert in adolescent novels, but regardless of the genre, a story should be written to its audience, being cognizant of what they expect, want and need from a book.

"It has got to have an authentic adolescent voice," Blasingame said of young-adult novels. "No subtle and nuancing characters and conflict. Teen readers want quick characters that can be deep, but they have to reflect issues and concerns that young people resonate with — which can be some pretty rotten things — but it has to be pretty clear.

"(Teen readers) also like a protagonist that faced adversity and survived, and in the end there was hope."

4. Don’t get bogged down in the process

Blasingame said there are two types of writers: ones that start from the climax and work their way backward, and ones who create the characters and just let them loose.

"If you're starting with the characters and then an initiating incident happens, and now you're going to take them in the right direction, be careful. Because you can go down the rabbit hole of another character and another subconflict and another backstory, where it's hard to extricate yourself from the convolution of stories and conflicts," Blasingame said.

"It’s almost like getting dressed," he said. "You’ve got the 6-foot, 210-pound you, and now you’re going to put on a white shirt and black pants. You can add a tie, you can add certain shoes, but you can’t just keep putting on all the clothes you own — that’s not a workable ensemble."

While a story idea may come to you in an instant, that doesn't mean the book will be finished overnight. One way to save time is to make sure that you are writing only what you need to.

5. Less is more

Another pitfall first-time authors often fall into, according to Blasingame, is filling up page space with extra words.

"Say it in as few words as necessary while most accurately conveying your meaning — don’t overwrite," he said.

What you are writing needs to be moving the story forward, and not getting in its way.

6. Build up to your conflict 

Once you have a plotline and characters to work with, start to deepen your plot with conflict your main character must face. Blasingame said that young readers across Arizona respond well to this type of a protagonist, along with a positive ending that gives the reader hope.

"Whenever I talk to young authors, they tell me what you need to do is chase your protagonist up a tree, and then throw rocks at him or her," he said. "Allegorically I think that means that you’ve got to put this person in a difficult situation, and then make little subconflict happen as the rising action heads toward its climax."

7. A snappy ending

Hope isn't the only attribute of a proper ending, Blasingame said: "As the story is ending, accelerate to the physical climax; make it unambiguous, make it short and sweet; end it with nice detail." 

8. Be patient 

Blasingame said that the industry is easier now than ever before, with social media and support groups, but the process still takes time. 

"I think that’s where a lot of people run into more adversity than they are prepared for," Blasingame said. "Successful authors will tell you that it takes about three years for them. And these are successful authors."

"Piper, the young woman that we did the Make-a-Wish program with, had it in her mind what her story was, and she knew where it was going. She was able to write that book in about five months. But she had a lot of discipline."

Despite the changing industry, there are still difficulties that stand in the way of first-time authors.

"There is a horrible paradox in that most publishing companies will not look at a manuscript that hasn’t been pitched by a fairly famous agent, and those agents won’t take on an author that doesn’t have a successfully purchased manuscript, so it’s tough," he said. "But it’s different with the new technology. The book and (eventual) movie 'The Martian' was originally self-published on the internet."

Luckily, there are groups and other avenues by which to get published, which is why it is important to stay connected. 

9. Have a good pitch 

Once you get through the process of writing a book and having it edited, you have a small frame of time to make an impression with an agent or publisher.

This, Blasingame said, is why it is essential to be able to boil your story down into a good pitch — in other words, being able to sell your novel in about 20 seconds. 

10. Get support, stay connected

"It is kind of hard to work in isolation and make it," Blasingame said. "There are workshops that connect you with writing groups, and you want to get in a writing group that has some people that are successfully publishing and can connect you to agents. One of those organizations is American Night Writers. American Night Writers has produced several successful authors, including Stephenie MeyerStephenie Meyer is the author of the extremely successful "Twilight" book series. ." 

Phoenix has multiple writing meetups and workshops throughout the year.

"Go to these workshops, meet people, get in a group," Blasingame said. "Join organizations that give you a path. Somebody just needs to be in a circle when you’re reading a part of a chapter and say, ‘Hey I think that might have potential, can you email me the manuscript or the chapter?’"

Top photo: ASU English Professor Jim Blasingame looks at some of his young adult books during an office move. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Isaac Windes

Reporter , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

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3 tips to engineer the best gingerbread house

December 14, 2018

ASU construction students use their building skills to craft solid and delicious holiday confections

What are the best holiday gingerbread houses made of? Sugar and spice and engineering advice.

Early this month, to spark some holiday cheer before final exams, the Arizona State University student organization Advancing Women in Construction challenged students across campus to put their skills to the test in a gingerbread house tournament.

Their construction and engineering knowledge can help you build your tallest, strongest and most innovative gingerbread creation yet.

1. Give it time to dry

Probably the most common culprit behind crumbling gingerbread houses is wet icing.

“It’s very important to give enough time for the icing to dry,” said Khin Hnin Kay Thwe, a construction management student in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and public relations officer in Advancing Women in Construction. “This is the same process used to give concrete a certain amount of time to set so it has maximum strength.”

Just as you wouldn’t want to add a roof to a building with concrete supports that are still curing, let that gingerbread house icing harden up first!

2. Balance fantasy and practicality

If you’re taking cues from innovative architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, I.M. Pei and Zaha Hadid, you’ll want to add a lot of accoutrements to make your gingerbread house dazzle.

But Thwe has another recommendation: “Be concerned about the loads you’re putting on the material to make sure it won’t fall apart.”

Consider the weight of your decorative flair in proportion to the stability of the walls and roof (and don’t forget the first tip about giving your icing enough time to dry).

Two students building gingerbread house
Mylena Dinh (left) and Amber Nguyen add decorations onto their gingerbread house. Photographer: Alisha Mendez/ASU

Planning your design ahead of time can help, as can the concept of constructability. That’s reviewing the construction plan before breaking ground to find obstacles or design and process concerns, said Kristen Parrish, associate professor of construction management and Advancing Women in Construction faculty adviser.

Knowing the end goal you have in mind is important for both sustainability and efficiency.

“This highlights the sorts of decisions that contractors make all the time about how to build a structure quickly and affordably while maintaining a safe site and delivering a quality product,” Parrish said.

With some planning, you can avoid making messes or wasting material to achieve the best results.

3. Think creatively for better designs

Though following too many creative threads on architectural style or decor can lead your gingerbread edifice to collapse, Parrish says creativity can also be a strength.

“(Gingerbread house builders) can learn about which sorts of ingredients lend the most stability, as well as shapes that best support height,” she said. “For instance, a triangular base may allow you to build up higher than a square base would permit.”

Try different materials and structural shapes and designs to find what works best.

Optional: Stick with the budget

While your opulent palace of gingerbread might stand strong using these tips, students competing in the tournament were also encouraged to create a cost-effective design with graham crackers, icing and candies for decoration.

Contending with cost constraints and limited materials mirrors the challenge construction professionals face when tasked with designing within a budget. So the competition judges scored the competitors in five categories: cost of materials, appearance, craftsmanship, color and design.

Group of about 40 students posing around gingerbread houses
About 40 students participated in the Advancing Women in Construction student organization’s semester-end gingerbread tournament. Students were separated into eight teams at the beginning of the event and given 45 minutes to create the best design based on cost, appearance, craftsmanship, color and design. Photographer: Alisha Mendez/ASU

And our winners are ...

Judged by Del E. Webb School of Construction alumni, competitors worked in teams formed at the event and “showed great teamwork and creativity throughout the tournament,” Thwe said.

The first-place winners, with the highest marks in all five categories, were construction management majors Jay Nguyen, Shandiin Yessilth, Paige Wildin and Stettler Anderson, along with Nicholas McDonald, who is studying real estate development in ASU's W. P. Carey School of Business in addition to construction management.

Wildin says her team's victory came after their initial strategy led to some broken graham crackers.

“One unsuccessful strategy we had was assembling the floors of the gingerbread house on the house’s structure because the lower graham crackers would break from the pressure we applied from above,” Wildin said. “This caused us to assemble and apply pressure to the floors in parts on the side and then gently place them one onto the other.”

Nguyen says they avoided overspending by planning out the design ahead of time and only took structural items they needed, saving much of their budget for decorative items.

“Our education played a role in our building method, choices and teamwork,” Nguyen said.

Most competitors were students in the Del E. Webb School of Construction, part of the School for Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the six Fulton Schools, rounded out by a couple math majors from ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Students not only had a chance to apply the concepts they’ve studied throughout the semester,” Thwe said, “but also to have fun and celebrate the end of the semester while building these gingerbread houses.” 

Top photo: Arizona State University construction students offer tips for the best holiday gingerbread house. Photographer: Alisha Mendez/ASU

Monique Clement

Communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Mesa Art League show at ASU Gammage

December 14, 2018

More than 25 artists from Mesa Art League will show and sell their artwork at ASU Gammage this month. Theatergoers attending December and January shows will have an opportunity to view or purchase a variety of art that will include about 50 works that in oils, acrylics, watercolor and mixed media. The show will open on Dec. 19 and run through Jan. 28. 

Mesa Art League members are happy to display their work during the busy December schedule at ASU Gammage, which include the 2018 K-Love Christmas and Manheim Steamroller Christmas, two very popular events. During January theatergoers can attend "Hello Dolly" and "Silent Voices: Lovestate" as well as viewing the MAL artwork. Chere McKinney Download Full Image

“Many of the works we have seen in our art league recently are very exciting and of high quality,” said Loralee Stickel-Harris, president of MAL. "The opportunity to have another exhibition at ASU Gammage is a privilege for our members."

Patricia Book, a graduate of ASU and member of MAL, noted that “the historic hall built by Frank Lloyd Wright is always a wonderful venue for our artists. I look forward to revisiting ASU Gammage which I found so exciting as a student at ASU.”

The exhibit will be open to the general public for tours on Mondays at 1 p.m., 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. Please meet at the box office. For any other special requests, contact the ASU Gammage box office at 480-965-6912.  Note that tours will not be offered on Dec. 24 or Dec. 31 when ASU Gammage is closed for the holidays.  

Marketing and Communications Assistant Worker, ASU Gammage

Food: The universal human experience

December 13, 2018

Culture, trends, identity and even migration patterns can be found by examining what we eat

Though holiday traditions may vary between countries and cultures, no festive gathering would be complete without that most ubiquitous imperative of human life: food.

On a rudimentary level, food’s job is to provide us with the vitamins and nutrients that keep us alive and well. But food also nourishes our souls.

“Food brings people together,” said Frank Infurna, Arizona State University associate professor of psychology. “It really fosters a sense of community and belonging.”

The son of Sicilian immigrants, Infurna grew up in upstate New York, where his “stereotypical Italian family” would spend Sundays at his grandparents’ home noshing on pizza and lasagna. Nowadays, he and his wife co-own and operate an organic farm in Gilbert, Arizona, named La Campagna (Italian for “the countryside”).

It reminds him of his grandparents’ home and the garden there that supplied the Sunday feasts.

“It’s part of who my family is,” Infurna said.

For many people, food is a reflection and celebration of identity. In the midst of the holiday season, ASU Now spoke with professors across disciplines — including transborder studies, nutrition and agribusiness — to take a multifaceted look at the role food plays in our lives.

Food and identity

In spring 2019, School of International Letters and Cultures Spanish instructor Ileana Baeza Lope will teach a new course offered by the School of Transborder Studies titled “Mexican Foods in the Southwest.”

The course is presented in three parts: pre-Columbian food and its relationship to spirituality; food as an evolving reflection of Mexican identity; and food as the materialization of Mexican culture in the U.S.

“Part of Mexican identity has to do with the enjoyment of being alive,” said Baeza Lope, a native of Merida, the capital city of the Mexican state of Yucatan. “Mexican culture is a very cheerful culture. Humor is part of our identity because it was also a survival tactic, because of our history of colonization.”

Simin Levinson, a clinical associate professor of nutrition, teaches a course called “Cultural Aspects of Food” that asks students to research and cook a dish that represents their cultural heritage.

That can get tricky in America, a nation of immigrants, where just because your ancestors are Irish doesn’t mean you’ve ever tasted corned beef and cabbage. And Levinson, who was born in Iran, can relate.

“I grew up in the U.S. eating my American mother’s tuna noodle casserole for dinner,” she said. “So even though I identify as Persian, tuna casserole is part of my food culture. My mom made it for me, and now I make it for my kids. It has become a comfort food for us.”

Food trends

From organic to gluten-free to local, food trends can have a big impact on what we eat.

“It’s a constantly evolving relationship we have with our food,” said Lauren Chenarides, an assistant professor at the Morrison School of AgribusinessThe Morrison School of Agribusiness is in the W. P. Carey School of Business.. “When we look back historically, most of the foods we consume today were not necessarily available to early humans.”

In her “Food Advertising and Promotion” course, she emphasizes to her students the importance of messaging on how we as consumers make choices when it comes to what foods we purchase.

For example, you might be tempted to order the salmon at your favorite restaurant because it’s the evening’s special, but it’s probably only on special because the restaurant got a deal on a bulk purchase. And you might think Chipotle’s sales would suffer after an E. coli scare, but if they follow it up with the right promotion, consumers will likely come back.

“Their No. 1 priority is getting people in the door,” Chenarides said. “So being a conscious consumer is really important because marketing and all the other aspects of the food business can be very confusing.”

Food and spirituality

There are the religious food customs we’ve all probably heard of in America, such as Jewish kosher law and Catholic fasting, and then there are the more obscure ones.

For the indigenous Maya of Mexico, food was more than just a material substance. It had a spiritual element that inspired the act of leaving food at ancestors’ graves on the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday; it is thought that the ancestors imbibe the spiritual essence of the food, leaving the material portion for the living.

Though the ritual may seem macabre, it is not a celebration of death, said Baeza Lope: “Dia de Muertos is a celebration of life. It’s about being able to share with the ones that have gone for one day.”

One religion that Levinson encourages her students to take a deeper look at in her course is Rastafarianism. Many practitioners of the religion actually follow strict dietary laws, and some are completely vegetarian.

“We explore certain stereotypes because learning about different groups and cultures around the world is how we learn to respect people who are different from ourselves and how we gain an appreciation for things that are different than what we’re used to,” Levinson said.

Food and migration

Food can even unlock the secrets of the past.

“Looking at regional migration patterns shows us how certain foods have shaped history,” Levinson said.

The Irish Potato Famine in the 19th century caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, resulting in a surge of Irish immigrants — and their recipes — coming to America. In the Midwestern United States, German immigrant influence can be seen in the popularity of cheese, broth and beer there today. And there is a distinct French influence in the cuisine of New Orleans.

In some areas of the U.S., different cultures have embraced aspects of one another’s food cultures to create fusion dishes. Chino-Latino blends Chinese and Latin food while Chino-Bandido blends Chinese with Mexican food. And residents of Southern Arizona will be familiar with the Sonoran dog: Unique to the region, it’s a hot dog wrapped in bacon and grilled, then finished off with such toppings as pinto beans, onions, tomatoes, mayonnaise, mustard, jalapeños and salsa.

Associate Director of the School of Transborder Studies Lisa Magaña is fascinated by all of it.

“This region has such an interesting history,” she said, “and through the food fusions, you can see how it really does transcend borders.”

Favorite cultural dishes

Frank Infurna, associate professor of psychology


Origin: Italy

Flavor profile: Creamy and slightly spicy, lasagna is possibly one of the oldest types of pasta, commonly made with stacked layers of pasta alternated with sauces and ingredients such as meats, vegetables and cheese, and sometimes topped with melted grated cheese. Typically, the cooked pasta is assembled with the other ingredients and then baked in an oven.

“My mom and my grandma’s lasagna is second to none.”


Simin Levinson, clinical associate professor of nutrition


Origin: Iran

Flavor profile: Sweet or sour, depending on the recipe. Flavored with pomegranate paste and ground walnuts, it is traditionally made with braised duck or chicken. Fesenjan can also be made using balls of ground meat or chunks of lamb, but fish or no meat at all are very unusual. Served with Iranian white or yellow rice, yogurt, pickled veggies, bread, feta cheese and lots of herbs.

“In Iranian cooking we eat a lot of rice and stew; it’s called khoresh. My favorite type of khoresh is fesenjan. It’s made with pomegranate molasses. I cook it down until it forms a paste. It makes a sweet, tart, velvety sauce. Now my mouth is watering!”


Ileana Baeza Lope, Spanish instructor

Queso relleno

Origin: The Yucatan Peninsula

Flavor profile: Savory and meaty with a Dutch influence. Translated, it means “stuffed cheese,” and consists of a round of Edam cheese hollowed out and filled with minced meat, raisins, nuts, various spices, sometimes olives and hard-boiled egg, wrapped in muslin and steamed, then topped with a red tomato sauce and a white, flour-based sauce.

“Our culture is very different from the rest of Mexican culture. Yucatan cuisine is a mix of European ingredients with local ingredients. But all of Mexico is very diverse — just as diverse as the U.S. population — and the food reflects that.”


Lisa Magaña, associate director of the School of Transborder Studies


Origin: Mesoamerica

Flavor profile: Starchy and savory or sweet, tamales are made of corn-based dough called masa, filled with such ingredients as meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and chiles, and steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. The wrapping can either be discarded prior to eating, or be used as a plate and eaten from within.

“Growing up, my mom’s big thing was tamales. It was an event. First you soak the leaves, then you go buy the masa, then you make the meat, then you soak the chile … and so on.”


Lauren Chenarides, assistant professor at the W. P. Carey Morrison School of Agribusiness


Origin: Japan

Flavor profile: A generally mild-flavored raw fish meal, traditional sushi is prepared with Japanese rice seasoned with vinegar, salt and sugar. Flavorings can include soy sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger. Sushi is meant to be eaten in one bite so that all of the elements — the feel and taste of the fish, the texture of the rice grains and the flavor of the seasonings — can be experienced at once.

“My grandma and I connected over food. She was Greek, and we would spend hours in the kitchen. However, I’ve sworn off pasta and pizza because I just ate too much of it at home as a kid.”

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How 'Sex and the City' pushed the evolution of female characters in movies, TV

December 11, 2018

Women and gender studies class explores female sexual agency as reflected in popular culture

A hit comedy series that helped to shape the image of the modern-day woman has been adopted into a gender studies class at Arizona State University. And like the show, it continues to get big ratings from students.

Michelle McGibbney’s “Sex and the City: Women, Sexuality and Popular Culture” is a seven-week online course that examines how women and sexuality have been depicted in American pop culture from the 1950s to the current day.

It’s also one of the most popular and highly anticipated classes at the university, drawing close to 1,000 students a year. Taught for over a decade, this course is offered year round and will commence again in January.

ASU Now spoke to McGibbney about the three-credit course and why it continues to resonate.

Woman in black and white photo
Michelle McGibbney

Question: Your program has a course named after "Sex and the City," the popular HBO series. In your opinion, was that show the tipping point in terms of accurately reflecting/depicting the modern-day woman and ideologies of gender and sexuality?

Answer: "Sex and the City," I think, was influential and appealing to a modern-day audience because it was less apologetic about its representations of women than we had seen. It challenged mainstream images and crossed — for some — into an uncomfortable area, examining issues that obviously existed but weren’t so openly discussed. Adoption, abortion, breastfeeding and other topics surrounding the politics of reproduction that women in modern-day America face were seen throughout the course of this show. Plus, these four women, who shared a strong bond, openly and honestly discussed sexual issues that are considered taboo, but only because they are women.

However, at the same time, in terms of it being a tipping point, we still see a rather familiar formula. We still have four women who meet the beauty standard and are set up for the male gaze. We also have the implications of race and class with these four white women who live in New York City and represent consumption. And even though the show touched on lesbianism it was still very heteronormative.

Q: Some say the feminist movement of the 1970s was the first real glimpse into representations of the modern-day woman, yet it took several decades for their lives to be depicted on television. Why so long?

A: Well, I guess I would say we have always made some progress but even still today women are held to a double standard and to a beauty standard.

But even if you look at popular shows in the 1970s, you can see the impact the feminist movement had on these representations. Feminism made these shows happen, these shows speak to and from the culture at large. In the ‘70s, in a similar setting to "Sex and the City," we saw … Mary Tyler Moore (depicting) the single girl trying to make it in the city. While this show was groundbreaking for the time in terms of showing a single, working woman, what made this show nonthreatening was her ultimate goal of marriage and landing a man. Often, as scholars have suggested, when we see a single girl trying to survive or even thrive it often becomes a cautionary tale for women warning them of the dangers of not confirming to a so-called patriarchal life.

In the ‘70s, we also saw shows like "Wonder Woman," "Bionic Woman" and "Charlie's Angels" and while not entirely liberating — and extremely full of mixed messages where the characters are tough but sexy — it was still a change from the nuclear housewife, which had dominated TV.

Q: It took a premium channel like HBO in order to portray women without being watered down. How has that affected the other networks in terms of accurately portraying women?

A: I think censorship, self-censorship and even sponsorship plays a large role in what images we consume and where. Prime-time TV still caters to the idea that families and youth are watching and offers “safe” content. While technological advancements have made HBO and others available at your fingertips whether on your phone, computer, IPad, etc., I don’t think you can compare these types of channels to prime-time TV. Prime-time TV, I think, still largely has to cater to a much wider audience and because of this the images tend to be nonthreatening. Take "Will & Grace" for example; it has recently made a comeback. While we see a gay male character in the lead role, it is still what critics consider a “safe” comedy. As critics and scholars alike have pointed out Will is symbolically coupled with Grace and her relationships often outshine his. And of course, again we have four white characters living in New York City.

Where we really see progressive representations is now on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon that offer niche content. These audiences are paying for specific content that meets their needs, content that unfortunately, network television can’t even touch or compete with.

Q: What current shows that better represent race, class, ethnicity and age are pushing the envelope in regard to women?

A: There are many shows today that push the envelope in one way or another. Whether we see more representations of LGTBQIA communities, women of color, aging women or even single moms, we have made great strides. But in terms of an intersectional analysis I guess I have yet to find a show that truly captures it all. "The L Word," "Girls," "Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce," "Ugly Betty," "Jane the Virgin," "Grace and Frankie," "Queen Sugar" and "Insecure" have all contributed to more diverse depictions and multifaceted characters, but we still have a long way to go.

Q: Do shows that use nudity help the case in gender equality or has this shifted?

A: There is a body positive movement that embraces all body types and sees nudity and personal agency over public displays of sexual expression as a possible form of equality. While this seems to be a great message there is also another side to this story that we can’t overlook. Let’s face it, there is a significant difference between the way male and female nudity is presented in the media. And I guess I would ask: Are these depictions we see on TV, in magazines and billboards even really about empowering women?

Women are held to a different standard in terms of the body. Women, from a young age, are taught the most important thing about them, their biggest asset or contribution, is the way they look. Nudity often does not represent equality for women because of the way in which their bodies are socially constructed. Women have been and continue to be set up for the male gaze and until we have more feminist women and men behind the camera producing, writing and directing, these very sexualized yet passive images of women will continue.

Q: Why do so many students take women and gender studies classes such as this course?

A: WSTWomen's Studies courses appeal to a very diverse audience of students from all majors for a variety of reasons. As a student in our class you learn about the historical, cultural and social forces that shape our society. Students are asked to challenge conventional wisdom about gender and explore new ways of viewing the world. Courses such as this offer a new perspective through an intersectional lens, one that encourages students to critically analyze the images they see and the messages that dominate the popular discourse and to examine the relationship between popular media and social change. We offer so many engaging courses that I think really resonate with students because it helps them to make sense of important current social issues that are shaping our society.

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Movies on The Field unites film lovers at Sun Devil Stadium

December 11, 2018

Holiday favorite 'The Polar Express' will follow recent screening of 'Sorry to Bother You' in ASU 365 Community Union movie series

Next stop: “The Polar Express.” Sun Devil Stadium at Arizona State University will play host to another Movies on the Field event Friday, Dec. 14, with Robert Zemeckis' 2004 animated North Pole adventure that features the voice of Oscar winner Tom Hanks.

The presentation of “The Polar Express” on ASU’s new giant video boardThe 47- by 113-foot screen at Sun Devil Stadium, installed in 2017, is one of the largest college football video boards in the nation. will mark the third Movies on the Field outing for ASU 365 Community Union. It comes just weeks after the Sun Devil Stadium screening of the hit 2018 independent film “Sorry to Bother You” that included an in-person talkback with the movie’s director, Boots Riley. A joint effort between ASU 365 Community Union and ASU Film Spark in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, the “Sorry to Bother You” presentation brought hundreds to Sun Devil Stadium on Nov. 14 for a night of movie watching under the stars and on the football field.       


Video by Charrie Larkin/ASU

“Sorry to Bother You” has earned a number of nominations in the current film awards season and was recently named one of the Top 10 Independent Films of 2018 by the National Board of Review. Riley’s participation at the screening at Sun Devil Stadium and a classroom discussion earlier in the day provided students with a rare opportunity to interact with the first-time filmmaker and learn about his journey into feature film.

Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, ASU vice president for cultural affairs and executive director of ASU Gammage, called the screening of “Sorry to Bother You” at Sun Devil Stadium “an historic moment,” marking Riley's footnote as the first director of a Movies on the Field screening to attend the event — just two movies into the new seriesASU 365 Community Union and ASU Film Spark also partnered to screen the 2018 deep-sea action adventure "The Meg" in October..

Jennings-Roggensack and Adam Collis, director of ASU Film Spark, introduced Riley to an enthusiastic audience before the “Sorry to Bother You” screening and promised to continue the effort to bring more moviemakers to future events at Sun Devil Stadium.

Collis, who has helped guide students through the production of feature films such as the 2016 car-dealership comedy “Car Dogs,” also teaches the ASU film studies course Welcome to Hollywood, which allows students to interact with working professionals in the film industry live at the ASU California Center in Santa Monica and via video conference from ASU’s Tempe campus.

“ASU Film Spark exists because we like to connect ASU with incredible filmmakers and artists,” Collis said at the “Sorry to Bother You” screening. “We are delighted to be able to help realize this incredible ASU 365 Community Union concept that allows the football field to be used every day of the year for events like this.” 

ASU 365 Community Union is transforming the use of ASU’s landmark outdoor football stadium into a multipurpose venue and cultural hub for ASU and the surrounding community — 365 days a year. From breakfast meetings and yoga to concerts and films, Jennings-Roggensack says the idea is to create a place where community members of all ages can participate in various activities when Sun Devil football is not in play.

The ASU 365 Community Union screening of “The Polar Express” will be presented in partnership with iHeartMedia and radio station 99.9 KEZ on Friday, Dec. 14. The G-rated holiday favorite starts at 6 p.m. Tickets are $3 and free for children under the age of 2; there are also free tickets for ASU students exclusively on the ASU mobile app. Blankets and seat cushions are allowed and encouraged.

Top photo: ASU 365 Community Union, photo by Tim Trumble.

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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ASU professor draws on scientific themes for artwork at new biology building in Utah

ASU professor's artwork debuts in new biology building at Utah State campus.
December 7, 2018

Large-scale 'Symbols and Symmetries' piece commissioned by Utah State University

When a new building dedicated to teaching life sciences opens in January at Utah State University, it will feature a soaring, vibrantly colored artwork by an Arizona State University professor who used the principles of biology to create it.

Mark Pomilio, an associate professor in the School of Art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, spent the past year working on “Symbols and Symmetries,” which was recently installed in the third-floor atrium of the building.

“There was a specific context for the piece from the get-go — the type of research, like biology and genetics, that is going to be happening in this space,” he said.

“The design idea was to create it almost like an organism with that kind of interaction between the parts and the whole, and it made perfect sense with the way I create my pieces.”

Pomilio started the three-dimensional work by thinking about scientific imagery and began playing around with a hexagon. The six-sided shape shows up everywhere in nature, from honeycombs to the molecular skeletons.

The artwork "Symbols and Symmetries" by Mark Pomilio was recently installed in the new Life Sciences Building at Utah State University.

As he worked, the shapes built on each other.

“One doesn’t exist on its own,” he said. “Each is always in relation to the previous one, just like something would grow in nature.”

Technically, the work was a challenge. Initially meant to be two smaller pieces, the project was altered halfway through to become one large work. Pomilio had to rent studio space because his own studio wasn’t large enough to accommodate the 8-by-20-foot piece.

“I had to take it off the stretcher bars and roll it up to take it there,” he said. “The linen had to be prepared in a certain way to remain flexible and the paint had to be used in a certain way so it would stay flexible.”

Last month, Pomilio put the disassembled work into a truck and drove 12 hours to the Utah State campus in Logan, Utah, where he reassembled it and installed it in the 103,000-square-foot Life Sciences Building. The colors in “Symbols and Symmetries” reflect the shades of red in the mountains seen through the wall of windows.

Creating large-scale art is nothing new for Pomilio, who taught a course in public art at the University of Michigan and created seven pieces on the campus there.

The metro Phoenix area is nationally known for its vibrant public art, according to Betsy Fahlman, a professor of art history in the School of Art at ASU. She noted that the illuminated piece at the Civic Space Park next to the Downtown Phoenix campus, “Her Secret is Patience,” was funded by the City of Phoenix Arts and Culture Commission. (“Her Secret is Patience” is by Janet Echelman, with lighting by Paul Deeb.)

“Public art can be a memorial, it can highlight a neighborhood, and it gives a place interest,” said Fahlman, who also is adjunct curator of American art at the Phoenix Art Museum and a former board member of Scottsdale Public Art.

“Public art enlivens the environment. It’s fun to come upon a piece and be surprised,” she said.

The work is near a wall of windows that showcases the nearby mountains in Logan, Utah.

“It makes the place have texture.”

Fahlman spent years involved in the process of taking public art from proposal, through many conversations and approvals with stakeholders to the final unveiling. It can be a fraught undertaking as everyone weighs in and all the factors are considered, she said.

“Public art has to be ADA compliant, you need to make sure it’s safe, you have to make sure someone won’t climb on it. Is it going to offend anyone?” she said.

“Public art has a lot of supervision.”

Pomilio went through an extensive application process for the Utah project, including giving a presentation to a panel of architects, designers, deans and faculty. He won the bid over more than 300 applicants.

“I think they understood that I would make a piece that was in line with what they wanted,” he said. “But I wouldn’t know exactly what it was going to be until I got deeper involved in the project.

“They had to take a leap of faith in the outcome.”

Top image: Mark Pomilio (left) and his friend, artist Glenn Downing, stretch the linen-backed painting over the wood substrate before installing it in the building at Utah State University. Photo by Mary-Ann Muffoletto/Utah State University

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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Ant-patterned pillows cushion research, raise awareness for insects and biodiversity

December 6, 2018

Biomimicry 'Ant Man' touts insect ingenuity in pillow project

Clint Penick is feeling a little “antsy” about his new project — in the excited way one might feel about opening a holiday gift.

Penick, an ant aficionado and assistant research professor in the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University, is offering a rare perspective of the insect kingdom’s plucky picnic pests — by way of pillow. Blending science with art for a practical finish, Penick and his fellow researchers have created a unique line of decorative cushions that reflect their affinity for ants, one he hopes will help raise awareness about the beauty and benefits of the tiny armies that service our ecosystems.

“I’ve looked at ants under microscopes for years, but I never paid much attention to the patterns on their bodies aside from using them to differentiate one species from another,” Penick said. “This all changed when I was teaching an undergraduate course on public health, and we started to wonder how ants with rough body patterns were able to clean themselves and stay free from pathogens. At the same time, we realized the ant patterns were beautiful and might be applied to design.”

That idea to amplify the sculptured patterns of ant exoskeletons was first hatched at North Carolina State University where Penick was working on postdoctoral research. Before bringing the research to ASU’s Biomimicry Center, Penick and two other scientists — Adrian Smith and Rob Dunn — recruited fabric designer Meredith West to translate ant patterns from a database of ant imagery into prints. With prints in hand, they have now produced a line of pillows available through the online company Threadless Artist Shops.

“We didn’t just want to have ants on a pillow,” Penick said. “We wanted the pattern to be more abstract, like how zebra stripes represent a zebra without showing the whole animal. We raided a collection of ants I had gathered from different places around the world to create this pillow line and the 'spiny ants' from the genus Polyrhachis that I gathered in Australia became the basis for our first pillow design.” 

Penick says the pillows represent a rare opportunity to access a science-art collaboration as a practical product that anybody can buy. Just in time for the holidays, the pillows are now available for purchase online under the brand name HolotypeA word to describe a single type specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based., with sales proceeds going to support research efforts at ASU.

Through the Holotype ant pillow project, Penick and his team hope to raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity in our ecosystems. Pointing to the many benefits that stem from the variety and variability of life on Earth, Penick says protecting biodiversity should be held in the same regard as awareness about climate change and increasing urbanization.

“One thing that’s great about Arizona is that among the United States, we actually have the highest ant biodiversity,” Penick said. “It’s one of the reasons why we are doing research on antimicrobials produced by ants. A lot of human medicines come from natural products — especially plants, but insects represent promising sources as well. Biodiversity also helps to keep our ecosystems healthy and prevent invasive species from spreading.”

While largely overshadowed by more familiar species such as pandas, giraffes or rhinoceroses in the conversation about biodiversity, insects represent half of the two million species that have been described by scientists and are playing a significant role in maintaining and transforming our ecosystems. Penick points to research he has done on ants in dense cities like New York as an example.

In New York City’s famed theater district, ants eat the equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs per year in garbage waste that’s dropped on the ground.

“It turns out that ants can do quite well in cities,” he said. “There are somewhere over 8 million people living in New York City, but we estimate there are at least 16 billion ants — roughly 2,000 ants for every human living in New York City. And we know they can do a lot of beneficial things for people living in New York.”

Along the streets of Broadway, home to New York City’s famed theater district, Penick says ants are eating the equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs per year in garbage waste that’s dropped on the ground. He says ants have huge benefits to the city, cleaning up garbage as they navigate their way around the concrete jungle. And because they dig their nests underground, Penick says ants turn as much or more soil than earthworms, so they are really important in aerating the soil. He also says ants eat a lot of invasive pest species, serving as combatants for trees that might be under attack.

Penick says he hopes his research and pillow project will get people to pay attention to the positive aspects of insects and to think about these tiny species as beautiful and beneficial to society. 

The Holotype ant pillows are ready-made for order online. Identified by ant genus and species in binomial nomenclature, the pillows retail for about $30 each and are available in 16 different patterns and various sizes. Science lovers and ant enthusiasts can also collect the Holotype ant patterns as fine art prints or stretched canvas. Learn more at holotype.threadless.com.

Top photo: Swatch samples of the Holotype ant patterns. Photo courtesy Clint Penick.

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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How smart is the latest artificial intelligence?

December 4, 2018

Checking in on the current state of the research in marrying man and machine — What scientists are grappling with and what the end game looks like

A month ago a group convened in the University Club dining room at Arizona State University to discuss the future of national security research. There were retired Army and Marine generals, agents from the CIA and a bevy of scientists.

Two trendlines popped out over the peppered bacon and frittatas: Nation states are vying for technological dominance, and the Holy Grail in that sphere is the successful pairing of humans and artificial intelligence.

Creating machines that think and act like us is as much grounded in the humanities as it is in engineering. Talk to engineers about the problem, and they’ll discuss things far outside the usual lanes of engineering, things like the nature of self, perception and free will. Designing artificial intelligence is not like making a better refrigerator.

Most of us hear about artificial intelligence in apocalyptic tabloid headlines. Elon Musk says it’s going to wipe us out! Stephen Hawking said robots will take over the world!

Right now, worrying about artificial intelligence doing anything of the sort is like discussing overcrowding in the Martian colonies. It’s so far off it’s not worth talking about.

What’s the current state of the research? What are scientists grappling with now? And what does the end game look like?

How machines learn

“We don’t know how we see the world, essentially,” said Subbarao “Rao” Kambhampati, a professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Kambhampati is an expert in artificial intelligence, automated planning and machine learning. He is also chief AI officer at the AI Foundation. 

We need to understand how humans work, said Heni Ben Amor.

Ben Amor studies artificial intelligence and human-machine interaction. An assistant professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, Ben Amor directs the Interactive Robotics Laboratory.

“In order to create these machines and algorithms that adapt to a human, we first need to understand more about humans,” Ben Amor said. “That grey zone there in the middle, between understanding a human and creating products and algorithms for humans, that’s the interesting zone. That’s what we have to think about at the moment.”

Children see the world, manipulate it, play with it, and then they learn. Artificial intelligence has gone in the opposite direction.

“We see the world by learning how to see the world,” Kambhampati said.

That’s the only way we’ve been able to make machines see: You teach the machine how to recognize a dog by showing it millions of pictures of dogs. Immense databases of labeled images are available, thanks to the internet and smartphones.

Machine learning technology advances through very large sets of examples about patterns we can’t actually describe ourselves.

“We don’t have a theory of a dog,” Kambhampati said. “We see enough examples, and we have some kind of a concept we dial up internally that we don’t know how to articulate.”

Think about what a cat is. Now write a set of examples of what a cat is. Pointed ears, whiskers, long tail and so on. The set of examples will always be wrong in some respect. (Foxes also have whiskers, pointed ears and long tails.)

Enter the huge datasets and the patterns within. That’s where artificial intelligence is right now: using perception as a learning technique. Machines learn by doing and from examples.

“Basically we are trying to figure out how to make learning more efficient,” Kambhampati said.

A hurdle on the way to true AI

Artificial intelligence learns something like we do from mistakes. But no one ever showed you 14 million pictures of dogs. Maybe over a long period of time you’ve seen a million pictures of dogs.

“You do this enough times, we can essentially get a reasonable performance in unseen images with dogs and cats,” he said. “It can actually predict them.”

And here’s the giant road block.

“Explicable AI is a big challenge,” said Spring Berman, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Berman works on the modeling, analysis, control and optimization of robotic swarms. She is also associate director of the Center for Human, Artificial Intelligence, and Robot Teaming — a unit of the Global Security Initiative at ASU. “It’s like a black box.”

When artificial intelligence doesn’t work, no one knows why it didn’t work.

“Essentially there is this issue of what’s called inscrutability, which is, ‘I do it right, but you don’t quite know how I do it right,’” Kambhampati said. “This has led to lots of fears about the use of machine learning. When they work, you’re happy. When they fail, you don’t know why they failed.”

Bottom line, it’s not there yet. An autonomous car can recognize people standing on a corner, but it can’t tell whether they’re going to cross the street or whether they’re just having a conversation.

“I’m not sure machine learning has reached the point where it can extrapolate or be creative like humans are,” Berman said. “There’s a database the algorithms learn from; they can recognize a stop sign in an image or something like that.”

How do we want to relate to our machines? And how do we want them to relate to us? Those are two questions top on the minds of experts.

Human-machine interaction is nothing new, Ben Amor pointed out. Using a VCR was human-machine interaction.

“Most people remember interaction with a VCR as some horrible complex interaction where technically they would have had to read their manual but they didn’t and the rest was confusion everywhere,” he said. “The idea now is to create machines that don’t need a manual. They will adapt to you rather than making you adapt to them through a manual. That would have the advantage of creating a new class of machines that basically customize themselves to the human user.”

Challenges in the past have had to do with humans using a machine the wrong way. Chernobyl is a famous example of this.

“How can we make the robot really intelligent and react to the human partner?” Ben Amor said. “That’s what human-robot interaction is about: How can we have machines that reason about human intent — 'What is the human going to do next and what is his real goal?' — How can they complement our actions to achieve that goal?”

Should artificial intelligence replace us or augment us? Augmentation would be easier to implement.

“It should be as easy to work with them as it is to work with a human secretary,” Kambhampati said. Like a great executive assistant, it should know what you need before you do.

What the future holds

Kambhampati doesn’t believe artificial intelligence will (or should) develop free will. There is a question of trust. If you start working with a machine, after seeing explicable behavior over a period of time, “you will start trusting it,” he said.

People who have worked together for a long time may not need to talk while working, because they implicitly trust each other.

“That can happen between humans and machines too,” Kambhampati said. “The military are interested in getting to the point where there is implicit trust between machines and humans. At the same time, they are worried about that trust being misplaced.”

As it stands now, artificial intelligence is susceptible to being manipulated, if it has learned perceptually from being shown millions of pictures. This is adversarial machine learning, where outside people can manipulate the data such that your machine will suddenly start making catastrophic mistakes with modified dogs, which don’t look like modified dogs to you.

For example: Take a picture of a dog and change some of the pixels. To you, it still looks like a dog, but the machine sees it as an ostrich. The machine is glomming on to some microscopic values in the picture. This is not understood, and it’s a huge worry from a security perspective. If an army drone sees a herd of cattle, and what’s really there is an enemy platoon, that’s a problem.

“Everything can be seen to be anything else,” Kambhampati said.

As associate director of the Center for Human, Artificial Intelligence, and Robot Teaming, Berman spends a lot of time thinking about how humans and machines might team up.

“Our goal is to think about how best to coordinate teams of humans, software agents and robots for a variety of applications which could be transportation, manufacturing, search and rescue or defense,” she said. “We look at creating control strategies for swarms of robots that you could give them a mission and they could then carry it out on their own.”

Potential applications could be search and rescue in disaster scenarios (This has happened once: A lifeguard drone saved two swimmers in Australia in January), environmental monitoring, guarding harbors, doing construction in outer space or exploration.

“Robots are very good at things that people may not be good at, or robots can access hazardous environments, or do repetitive tasks that people don’t want to do,” Berman said.

How far away are we from intelligent robot helpers?

“It’s hard for me to say,” she said. “Because there’s so much work and testing, (autonomous cars) will be widespread before robot swarms.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


ASU professor to premiere new work as part of international research residency

December 4, 2018

Arizona State University media artist and sound researcher Garth Paine will premiere his new work “Future Perfect” in Germany Dec. 8.

The work is the culmination of a prestigious research residency at IRCAM, Centre Pompidou in Paris and the ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien in Germany. Paine, who has a joint appointment in interactive sound and digital media in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and in composition in the School of Music in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, developed “Future Perfect” for high order ambisonic sound diffusion and a new 3D cell phone music system. It also includes an immersive 3D video performance. Photo of Garth Paine Garth Paine. Download Full Image

He will premiere “Future Perfect” at the third edition of the inSonic festival at the ZKM. The festival is a showcase for genre-spanning artistic confrontations with new media technologies and innovative concepts, which will be explored in lectures, hands-on demonstrations, concerts and live coding performances. Festival visitors will have the chance to try out Paine’s newly developed performance system in a hands-on demonstration and then attend the concert performance on Dec. 8.

The work will also be available in 2019 as a VR concert experience.

Sarah A. McCarty

Communications and marketing coordinator, School and Film, Dance and Theatre, Herberger Institute